DoC announces its camping restrictions

As was noted in this thread in the NZ Tramper forums (thanks madpom), the Department of Conservation has published its list of places where it prohibits “Freedom Camping”. Note that this list only relates to DoC land, and doesn’t include any local authority land on which freedom camping might also be prohibited under the Act.

This list follows from the enactment of the Freedom Camping Bill, now known as the Freedom Camping Act, and which I’ve posted about previously [1] [2]. Among other things, the Act provides for DoC and for Local Authorities to issue instant fines for people found camping in places where camping has been prohibited or restricted, under the Act, by either DoC or the relevant Local Authority depending on who manages the land.

As might have been expected, the DoC list is mostly composed of carparks, picnic areas and occasional lookout points, where DoC has supposedly encountered or has good reason to expect problems. This is consistent with the marketed intent of the Bill to give power for authorities to restrict tourist-style camping in problem spots. An odd exception to this list seems to be the inclusion of “Aoraki Mount Cook National Park (except at approved camping sites)”.

Yes, DoC has actually stated that Freedom Camping is prohibited in The Entire National Park. [Update, 7th October 2011: Some helpful people at DoC have clarified a few things which I’ve noted in this comment.]

There’s a need for some legal translation here, because with intent or without, DoC has been unclear and misleading about its legal jurisdiction by including the entire Aoraki Mount Cook National Park in its list, as if camping is simply not allowed unless it occurs at approved campsites. If a blanket ban through the entire park is what DoC is trying to do, it’s unprecedented and disturbing because it inhibits the recreational value and freedom of visitors to experience the park on their own terms, which is one of the great things about our conservation estate. I’ve sent an email to DoC asking for this to be clarified.

As written, I don’t believe the Freedom Camping Act legally provides for DoC to impose a blanket camping ban on an entire national park, or anything similar. So far this also seems to be the consensus in the NZ Tramper thread linked from the start of this post.

According to the Act, Section 17 describes how DoC is allowed to define places where “Freedom Camping” is restricted or prohibited. Use of the term “Freedom Camping” is very significant, because Section 5 of the Act has previously defined it as “to camp (other than at a camping ground) within 200 m of a motor vehicle accessible area or the mean low-water springs line of any sea or harbour, or on or within 200 m of a formed road or a Great Walks Track”. Technically, “freedom camping” can be banned in the entire park, but the camping is not “freedom camping” unless it’s within 200 metres of the edge or meets one of a few other criteria.

What’s more likely is that DoC wants to prevent anyone from camping on the fringes and entry points of the National Park, and maybe it’s just been stated very lazily in its list of prohibited areas. Assuming there’s no intent to restrict camping throughout the entire park, I still find it concerning that a restriction can be stated in such a misleading, blanket non-specific way, and especially by DoC which is a large enough organisation to be expected to have the skills and experience to understand the law and be clear about this kind of thing. For one thing, it might suggest to visitors that there’s little reason to take a tent or alternative portable shelter which could lead to higher risks. Most importantly though, a blanket ban—even if not enforceable—contradicts the way in which the Freedom Camping Bill was sold as something that would allow specific problems to be addressed where they occur and only with clearly justifiable reasons.

Being allowed to camp in wild places on public land is part of a New Zealand experience, and wherever that right is removed there should be a clear and justifiable reason. Hopefully this is only a small slip-up that will soon be corrected. but ideally DoC will remove the item entirely and reduce the ban to the very specific and clearly specified parts of Aoraki Mount Cook National Park which it believes will be subject to Freedom Camping problems. Prohibiting camping within 200 metres of all roads, simply because that’s everything the law allows DoC to prohibit, doesn’t cut it for me. It’s very hard to justify and sets a bad precedent.

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